Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Shadow Stone - a Mystery Story for Girls

Mildred A. Wirt Benson was a prolific writer of children's and young adult mysteries, mostly for girls, back in the day. She was the original ghostwriter for the Nancy Drew series, and while she is probably most famous for that, Benson also wrote a plethora of books under her own name, as well as other various pseudonyms. She wrote books in the Ruth Fielding series, in the Dana Girls series, in the Kay Tracey series. She also wrote the Penny Parker series under her own name, as well as the Madge Sterling series under the name Ann Wirt. On top of that (and many other), she wrote several books in a series of books published by Cupples & Leon called "A Mystery Story for Girls" series. While not exactly rare, they are not always the easiest to find, particularly with their original dust jacket. So, when a good friend had one for sale recently, I bought it.  After reading it, I am so glad I did!

The Shadow Stone is a fun little mystery set in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time. The protagonist is Carol Scott, a fourteen year old girl who is anxious to enjoy the Mardi Gras celebration, but her older brother, Jack, plays a large part in the story as well. In fact, what is interesting about the story is that while Carol is clearly meant to be the girl sleuth in the story, it is actually Jack who comes across several major clues and ultimately has to rescue Carol from dangerous men who have taken her captive. Clearly, Carol is not meant to be the strong, independent Nancy Drew-type character; however, she is smart, quick, and more than willing to step in and right a wrong when she sees one.

The mystery centers around a thought-to-be jade stone that is carved so that when held up to the light, it casts the shadow of a man's profile. Carol gains possession of the stone through a case of mistaken identity, but it is immediately clear to her that the gruff man who gave her the stone and the belligerent girl who is trying to get the stone away from her want the shadow stone for nefarious purposes. Because of that, Carol decides to hold on to the stone. Needless to say, this not only causes her a lot of misfortune and danger, but it also leads her to meet the Mercier sisters, Sonia and Seenia. Circumstances find her pretending to be the Mercier's niece, who has not yet arrived. Carol discovers that the sisters have been holding an inheritance for their niece, and they are waiting for her arrival so that they can bestow it upon her. Their attorney and financial manager, Barry DeForrest, has been helping them and arranged the meeting.

As an adult reader, it was not at all difficult to figure out who was behind the missing niece and the stolen shadow stone; however, it was fun to follow Carol and her brother as they searched for clues and the meaning of the stone and to read their adventures and narrow escapes from culprits determined to get the stone and keep them quiet at any cost (and I do mean ANY cost!). There's a hidden room, a desperate escape from a houseboat, and a race through the woods at night that will keep the reader enthralled - and Wirt (Benson) manages to throw one final twist into the story at the end regarding the stone and the identity of the true Mercier niece that is not only surprising, but quite ingenious (as it proves to the reader that not everything is quite as obvious as it seems).

It is a shame that Wirt (Benson) only had the opportunity to write seven mysteries in this series for Cupples & Leon. She is an excellent storyteller for children's mysteries, and it would have been a real treasure to have many more of these mysteries by her - but I suppose we will have to settle for the multitude we have from the various publishers and series and cherish the gifts she gave us before her passing.

RATING:  9 red imp costumes out of 10 for mystery, cliffhangers, daring young detectives, and a surprise twist ending.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Dusk County Chronicles - Ashcan Preview Comic

Okay, normally the only reviews I do on my blog are those of trade paperbacks, or graphic novels, or complete mini-series (when I review comics). However, I recently picked up an ashcan edition preview comic for an upcoming comic from an indy imprint, Metal Ninja Studios, and I enjoyed the preview so much, I figured it deserved a review.

The Dusk County Chronicles will be an anthology comic (wish we had more of those today!), but the stories it will tell are not your average super hero or horror comic stories. Writer Joel Rodriguez, instead of giving comic readers the standard fare chose to take a different route - instead, Rodriguez takes a unique spin on some childhood (and maybe even adult) favorites.  In this ashcan preview comic, readers get a taste of just two of the four upcoming stories to be featured in the full series to debut next year.

STORY ONE: "A Friend in Me" - as you might guess by the title, this first tale of terror spins a twist on the Toy Story franchise. In just six pages, Rodriguez turns the cowboy, space man, doll, teddy bear, and slinky dog toys into a nightmare of murder and mayhem. And, in a cute twist (if "cute" can be applied to a horror tale), readers will see why the story is actually titled what it is (and no, it's not in any sexual sense, so get your mind out of the gutter!).

STORY TWO: "Forever Young" - what if Peter Pan's world was real? what if a boy could fly? and what if that boy could take others to that never-never land where you can stay a child forever? BUT - what if none of that was exactly what it seemed? What if there is only one true way you can be forever young? In this preview story, Jenny is about to find out that floating and staying young may very well be more terrifying than anything she could have ever imagined!

And to whet your appetite even further, there's a one page "news report" at the end of the preview comic that gives readers a hint at "Mindgames" and "Just Right," the other two stories that will appear in the upcoming anthology. A super-villain and werewolves. Hmmmm.....

What if there was a place that would take all of your childhood dreams and turn them into nightmares? That is the question Rodriguez asks his readers, and that is the answer that The Dusk County Chronicles will provide.

Roman Gubsky provides the art for both stories, as well as the cover. The art has just the right amount of roughness to fit the dark tone of the stories - the characters are not flashy with smooth lines, nor are they all beautiful, strong, and endowed. They are normal, the lines aren't perfect or straight, and the coloring provides the right ambiance to except the totally unexpected from the story you're reading. If the final product is of the same quality as this preview issue, then I'd say Rodriguez has a hit on his hands.

RATING:  99 red balloons (okay, I couldn't resist that one....) - 9 floating red balloons out of 10 for creative re-imaginings in two genres I love - horror and comics!

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Flash: Climate Changeling

The second novel based on DC's television show, The Flash, was just as good, if not better, than the first!  Not to be confused with the young adult series also being published, these adult novels (which I hate calling them that, because that brings about some very bad connotations with it) are definitely written at a much high reading level, are considerably longer than the young adults novels, and they pack a whole lot of story and action into one book. However, like the young adult series, they definitely capture the feel of the show, and the authors of these books show a strong talent for writing the characters as they appear on the show, so much so, that reading the books gives the reader a feeling that they are watching episodes directly from the television series.

"Climate Changeling" brings back the Weather Wizard, who was introduced back in the first season of the show. For those who may not remember, Mark Mardon and his brother Clyde both received weather-controlling powers from the particle-accelerator explosion that also gave Flash his powers. Mark was knocked into a coma, but Clyde went wild with his powers - until the Flash and Det. Joe West put an end to his tirade. Permanently. And that is something that Mark has never forgotten. Years spent in Iron Heights prison, Mark has had plenty of time to dwell on his hatred of Flash and Det. West, blaming them both for his brother's death. The guilt he feels for not protecting, not saving, his brother weighs heavily. And when a freak storm wreaks havoc on Iron Heights' security systems, Mark suddenly finds his powers increased, and breaks his way out of Iron Heights with only one thing on his mind.


I am not familiar with the author, Richard Knaak, but I definitely like his writing. He had the perfect feel for each of the characters when he wrote this book - Barry, Iris, Joe, Wally, Cisco, Caitlin, H.R., and even the Mardon brothers. Each character portrayed and read exactly as they are on the television show, and the dialogue was natural and in-character. The story was well-paced, never dragging, and Knaak even managed to make it accessible to new readers who have no knowledge of the history of the characters and the show without bogging it down too much with flashbacks or such. I did, however, have to keep reminding myself that this book clearly takes place some time before season four, and I believe before the wedding of Barry and Iris (although that fact is not exactly made clear - but since they never refer to Iris as Barry's wife, I'm just going to assume...)

As for the story itself, the Weather Wizard is out not only for revenge, but also to bring his brother, Clyde, back from the dead. It seems the spirit of Clyde is egging him on, pushing him harder and harder, causing a storm of unbelievable proportions to rain down on Central City. Barry and Team Flash can't seem to get a handle on it, and Cisco isn't able to pinpoint exactly where Mardon is at any given time. Meanwhile, Caitlin's powers are starting to surface again, someone in time with Mardon's vicious weather attacks. And all the while, Barry seems to be losing his strength and speed stamina the more he fights Mardon. Knaak definitely writes one epic battle here, with a climax that is well worth the wait (and with a story that is 430 pages, trust me, there is a wait!).

If you are a fan of the television show, then you'll enjoy this novel immensely - I highly recommend it!

RATING:  10 communication devices on the fritz out of 10 for remaining faithful to the show, while expanding the stories and world of the CW's The Flash.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Paradise Court - a Zenescope mini-series

Back in 2010, there was a little show called The Gates, which was about a gated community where werewolves, vampires, and witches lived, free to be themselves - until a new sheriff arrives in the community, a human who has no knowledge of the supernatural nature of the residents. I absolutely loved this show, and I was extremely disappointed when they cancelled it after only one season (leaving off with a huge cliffhanger!).

So, when Zenescope announced it would be doing a mini-series titled Paradise Court, a horror story about a gated community, instantly my thoughts returned to The Gates, and I eagerly bought each issue. The story, as it turns out, is nothing similar to The Gates; however, it is a well-written horror tale that certainly kept my interest.

Amy, Robin, Christian, and Mike are headed to Las Vegas for a week of fun. On their way, however, they are taking a quick detour to visit an old friend of Amy's - someone she hasn't seen in fourteen years. Amy is excited, and a bit nervous, about catching up with her old friend, but as soon as they enter the gates of Paradise Court, it's clear that something is not right.

Amy catches a lecherous neighbor staring at her over the fence, pleasuring himself as he watches her.

Amy's friend, Janey, is informed that a girl from the community is missing - perhaps lost in the canyons that surround Paradise Court.

And when Amy decides to follow the lecherous neighbor on the first night, she discovers more than she bargained for when she comes across a human skeleton!

If you're thinking this is the perfect set up for a horror movie - four twenty-somethings in an isolated community, with perverts, missing girls, and dead bodies - then you'd be right!  The story reads just like a great horror flick.  A hooded figure with a demon-skull mask is terrorizing the community, using a huge carving knife to do some carving of his own. One by one, Amy's friends begin to disappear. The police think she is simply overreacting, dreaming of the terrifying things she has seen. Janey thinks perhaps it is the isolation of the community that is having an affect on her. But when they discover newspaper articles in the neighbor's house that reveal his murderous past, the community police have no choice but to act.

And just when you think you have it all figured out - writer Joe Brusha pulls the rug out from underneath the reader and gives you a twisted ending that will literally have you screaming, "NOOOO!" The art by Babisu Kourtis is visually appealing, the characters distinct, and the dark tone of the story is beautifully rendered (if you can call it that for a tale of blood and horror!). Each issue's cliffhanger leaves you panting to now what happens next, and while some of the characters are clearly stock / stereotypes (let's face it - all horror movies have them), you do - at least I did! - start to care about what happens to some of the characters, hoping they will make it out alive.

While I gave up reading Zenescope titles after the end of the first Grimm Fairy Tales series, if they produce more stories like this, they may just pull me back in!

RATING:  9 secluded, gated communities in the middle of nowhere out of 10 for a terrifyingly great horror comic!

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

A Seckatary Hawkins Mystery - The Gray Ghost

The Seckatary Hawkins series is a unique one. The series follows a group of young boys on a Kentucky river bank who face some very dangerous, even life-threatening situations while trying to solve mysteries around them. They have their own clubhouse, hold regular meetings, require the boys to pay dues (a dime), and even keep minutes of their meetings and adventures - hence, the title character earning the name "Seckatary" Hawkins (as he admits that when he first was selected to keep the minutes, none of them could properly spell "Secretary").  The author, Robert F. Schulkers, provides detailed descriptions of the riverbanks, forests, fields, mountains, hills, and treacherous waters the boys travel in, around, and through, and the numerous boys are some country hicks, others learned school boys, and others just down-right rotten tomatoes.

I picked up the two hardcover editions printed by University of Kentucky Press - Stoner's Boy (the first book in the series) and The Gray Ghost, which is a later book in the series that sees the return of the boys' great nemesis. While I've never been a fan of boys' series, I find as a adult that I am reading more of them than ever before (although, admittedly, I still gravitate to the girls' series, simply because they do tend to focus more on the mystery and less on general adventure). I did enjoy Stoner's Boy, so I was curious to see where The Gray Ghost would find these boys.

The Gray Ghost is the fourth book in the series, and it appears that between the first book and this one, our young protagonist and his friends have had some interesting adventures. Seckatary and the Skinny Guy (gotta love the nicknames these boys have!) traveled to Cuba with Doc, and upon their return, they faced off against the Red Runners, and all but two of them were caught and sent off to reform school. As this book opens, Seckatary is thinking about the loss of a friend, the escape of Androfski (the "Silent") and Jude (the "Fifth) from capture with the other Red Runners, and the boys' upcoming summer break from school. Just when they think they might have an uneventful summer, though, they get a warning tacked to their door - Stoner's Boy, also known as the Gray Ghost, is back!

Reading the story is very much like reading Seckatary's journal - he provides descriptions of the day to day activities of the boys, but focuses on the adventures and mysteries they seem to lock into, in this instance, with the various "bad boys" who all seem to have reason to pester Seckatary and his friends. The mystery in Burney's Field turns out to be very puzzling for the boys, as there appears to be a ghost with an unearthly cry that scares anyone who tries to go into the field. There is also the three with the hidden "mailbox" that allows Androfski to communicate with those who are helping him. Then there is the tree in Parks Woods - a unique tree that serves as a door for Simon Bleaker into a hidden cavern. With so much going on, you'd have to wonder how Schulkers manages to keep everything and everyone straight, but with 335 pages of story, there is plenty of room to flesh out the tale. Plus, readers get treated to a brief return by the twins, Harold and Oliver, and discovery once and for all the true identity of the Gray Ghost (Stoner's Boy).

A Kentucky boy myself, I enjoyed the writing style, as well as the story, and it's easy to see what attracted Harper Lee to these books.  I wish the UoK Press would reprint more of the books, but I suppose today's society just doesn't know how to appreciate the works of art from yesteryear.

RATING:  8 wild and angry unicorns out of 10 for keeping the past alive and providing a little slice of country life with a great mystery.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Dying for a Thrill - a Mike King Mystery

Author Mark Zubro re-enters the world of detective Mike King in the second (but hopefully not the last!) book of the series. Our poor protagonist still hasn't found love, and his friends and co-workers are still harping on the fact that every guy he sleeps with winds up dead! Talk about bad luck. But that doesn't keep Mike King from falling for guys during his investigation, nor does it stop him from taking on his latest case when a young man with blood on his hoodie stumbles into his office and promptly collapses. And that's just on the first page.

Dying for a Thrill is a rather intense murder mystery, as not only does it deal with much higher than ordinary stakes for a standard detective novel, but the reader is never really sure who is telling the truth and who isn't. When a young, gay hacker shows up in King's office with blood on his hoodie, it's clear that something is wrong. The young man, who says his name is Jamie, begs for King to help him.  "They're after me," he says. It turns out, though, that the question is not who is after him - the real question is who ISN'T after him! It seems Jamie and his group of gay hackers, who not only think of themselves as modern-day Robin Hoods, but also think that they can outsmart everyone, didn't quite cover their steps as carefully as they thought. Someone in their midst was a traitor, and now the government, terrorist groups, and radical religious rights groups are after Jamie and his friends. King agrees to help him, but even as he does, he knows that Jamie is not telling him everything.

You really have to pay attention as you read this book, as it becomes more and more difficult to tell who is real, who isn't, who's telling the truth, who's lying, who is using who, and who is the real villain in the story? The more King and his team learn about the situation, the more they get tied up into the violence, and the more they realize they may just be in way over their head. An accident that seems to have never happened (yet one cop is willing to tell King what he saw). The body of Jamie's friend that seems to have disappeared (and no hospital has seen hide nor hair of him). The numerous agents who seem to have no trouble finding and confronting King, asking for the whereabouts of Jamie and his friends (and none of them are who they claim to be). And then King has a very difficult time keeping track of his own client (who, by the way, transferred to King's account an astronomical sum of money to help him out). All the while, King and his associates find themselves targets of vehicular attacks, gun attacks, and physical attacks.

Then, just when you think things can't get any crazier - King finds out that Jamie and his friends may have uncovered a plot so detrimental to national security that the President himself could be a target!

There is absolutely no doubt that this mystery is one heck of a roller coaster ride, but definitely in a good way. Every time I thought I had it figured out, Zubro throws in another curve ball and send the story headed off in a completely different direction. There was one thing about the story that did bother me, however - not the fact that every agent and cop who was hunting for Jamie and his friends came on to, and one even slept with, King - no, it was the fact that each of these guys are all described as having well-endowed, bulging crotches. Yes, it's stretching it a bit to think that every agent, cop, or terrorist who confronts King just happens to be gay, but hey - this is a gay mystery, after all. But to think that every single guy is super-endowed? Well, that's pushing the envelope of believe-ability a bit too far. Some guys are well hung, some guys aren't. Some guys are showers, other guys are growers. It would just be nice, for once, to see gay fiction portray men in a realistic fashion, rather than having them all be "super-studs."

But, that was a minor thing, and it certainly did not stop me from turning page after page to see where this was all going to lead. I'm not finding any more books listed for this series, but I hope Zurbo doesn't place Mike King on a shelf - he's a great character with a diverse, fun supporting cast, and quite frankly, this would make for a terrifically great television series!

RATING:  9 James Bond villains out of 10 for keeping the twists and turns coming so fast I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next!

Monday, December 10, 2018

Ginger Fox - a Comico mini-series

Back in its "hey-day," Comico was an independent comic publisher who put out some pretty interesting material - Elementals, the Justice Machine, the Maze Agency, Grendel, the Fish Police, among others. One little known title, which, quite frankly, I had never heard of before combing through the $1 bin at a local comic shop, was Ginger Fox, a 4-issue mini-series written by Mike Baron and with art by the Pander Bros. (who, coincidentally enough, did the art for the first Grendel story I ever read).

Ginger Fox tells the story of ... well, Ginger Fox. Ginger is the C.E.O. of Peppertree Studios out in Hollywood, California. She has an ex-husband, a teenage son, an ever-loyal bodyguard / personal assistant, a nosy reporter, a fading movie star, a current boyfriend, and way more drama going on behind the scenes that in front of the camera!

Baron piques the interest of the reader right off the bat with opening pages that introduce a number of dramatic elements - Tammy True (the insipid reporter) shows up at Ginger's estate with questions about her boyfriend who may be cheating on her while making a film out of the country; questions about the new monster movie that was supposed to be kept a secret from the public while it was filming; and questions about the movie's star, Lewis Lassiter, a leading man whose stardom ended ages ago and who now could be fighting AIDS (the book was published in 1988, at the height of the AIDS crisis and the same year Worlds AIDS Day was celebrated for the first time - so it's no surprise that it was used as a topical issue in comics of that day). Before the first issue is finished, Ginger has found that her boyfriend is incommunicado, her ex-husband shows up wanting to see his son and creates a violent scene, and her babysitter attends a yacht party that leads to her being drugged and kidnapped by Tammy True! If that is not enough soap opera drama to capture your attention, then I don't know what is.

Over the next three issues, Ginger finds her attention divided between her love life, her professional life, and her home life, trying desperately to prevent all three from crumbling. Tammy True, with the assistance of an executive who wants to take over Peppertree Studios, will use Doris (the babysitter) to obtain information they can use against Ginger. Joe (the ex-husband) will stop at nothing to get his son away from Ginger.  And Creighton Caw (a new element added in the second issue) is determined to get back the motion picture that he believes Ginger stole from him. Each issue is filled with plenty of action, lots of drama, and the Pander Bros.' unusual art style that simply adds elegance to the story. Each page comes alive with the over-the-top characters, the creative panels, and the vibrant colors and backgrounds. I'm not a huge fan of artists who stray away from the realistic art style, but the Pander Bros. have an odd, abstact way of telling a story that it draws you in immediately.

And I would be very remiss if I did not mention that unique covers that Comico published these books under. Each issue is a different colored chapter (as in "Chapter Yellow," "Chapter Black," "Chapter Blue," and "Chapter Red") with a photo strip through the middle of each cover. Model Melissa Henderson brought Ginger to life on the covers, with other models used to create the Hollywood feel of the book. Quite honestly, it was the covers themselves that caught my attention and made me want to pick up the book - so kudos to Comico for offering up something different than the standard superhero / anti-hero fare.  Kind of a shame that Ginger Fox pretty much ended her career with this mini-series (although two years prior to this mini-series, in 1986, Comico published a graphic novel of Ginger Fox, which I hope to find one day and read).

If you ever come across this book in a back-issue bin, I'd definitely suggest picking it up - well worth the read!

RATING:  10 highly sought-after film canisters out of 10 for an out of the ordinary comic book
with extraordinary art and storytelling talent!

Friday, December 7, 2018

Secret Circle Mysteries #10 - The Secret of Spaniards Rock

Back in 2008, while in Toronto, a good friend (Bill!!!!!) introduced me to a series-that's-not-a-series of children's mysteries called the Secret Circle mysteries.  These books, written by various authors, are all set in different areas of Canada, and each book has a different set of protagonists (some brothers and sisters, some just friends, etc. - but there's always more than one). Published between 1962 and 1965, the 11-book series features 10 hardcovers with dust jackets published by Little Brown, while the last book was published only in paperback.  I picked up 8 books out of the series relatively easy from used book stores in Toronto, and later, from eBay.  The last two hardcovers I needed, though - The Mystery of the Missing Emerald and The Secret of Spaniards Rock - seemed to be impossible to find, and I have spent the last five years keeping an eye out for them.  Well, surprise, surprise! While in Arizona a couple of months ago, I came across The Secret of Spaniards Rock (in dust jacket!) at a Half-Price Books for only $3.00.  Needless to say, I didn't hesitate to buy it. This past week, I finally had a chance to read it.

Like the other Secret Circle mysteries, The Secret of Spaniards Rock is set in Canada, this time out near Vancouver.  Featuring Bob and Sue Channing, a brother and sister team, the story centers on the mysterious goings-on around Spaniards Rock, a small isle just off Galiano Island where a retired lighthouse keeper and his wife live. Her nephew and his scientist friend are currently living with the couple, performing experiments on sea water that are very hush-hush. They are very protective of their secret experiments, and it seems Bob and Sue are the only ones who question the secrecy. Perhaps that's because one night they witness the two men chasing a third man onto the jetty, and then hear gunshots. As Bob fervently tries to row their tiny boat home, a speeding cruiser nearly runs them down, knocking them both into the water!

From that point on, Bob and Sue knows that something fishy is going on - but the problem is, their parents won't believe them, and the scientist seems to have an answer for everything. When Bob and Sue find a bag filled with thousands of dollars in $5 bills, their curiosity grows even more - and when the scientist stakes a claim on that money, even going so far as to confirm his ownership by reciting the serial numbers of the bills, Bob and Sue know for sure that nothing is what it seems. A morse code signal for help from the lighthouse on Spaniards Rock move Bob and Sue into action, as they realize the retired lighthouse keeper and his wife are in danger. But what can two teenagers do?

 Author David Gammon gives readers a pretty exciting story, which surprised me, as most of the books in this series, while having somewhat interesting mysteries, have had consider exposition that was difficult to get through and made reading some of the books a real chore. But not this one! Gammon kept the action going, kept the mystery intriguing (although not really so difficult to figure out, particularly once the kids found the money), and provided some well-written characters who acted naturally and actually made you care about what happened to them. Makes me wish that Gammon had written all the books in the series (he actually only wrote two of the - the first one, The Mystery of Monster Lake, and the tenth one, this book).

If you are going to read any of the books in this series, this is definitely the one to read!

RATING:  9 weird, greenish-glowing lights out of 10 for writing a young adult mystery the way it should be written!

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Creepella von Cacklefur No. 4 - Return of the Vampire

It's one of those days where you need something simple and light to read, and the Creepella Von Cacklefur definitely fits that criteria. A series for early readers, Creepella Von Cacklefur is a special-effects designer and director of scary films, as well as a student studying to be a journalist. Oh, and yes, she's a mouse. She lives in the world of Geronimo Stilton, an Italian creation (as is Creepella) whose name is pulled from an English cheese, "Stilton." All of the various series in the Stilton universe are for young readers, with an RL3 reading level. The prose is easy to read, and many of the words are written in stylized font to actually depict the word, as well as spell it, making it fun for the young readers to enjoy the story as the read.

Return of the Vampire is the fourth book in the series, which finds Creepella coming to the aid of Franco Fangley, an old friend of Grandpa Frankenstein who happens to be a vampire and a connoisseur of tomato juice. It seems Frangley's castle is haunted, filled with ghosts who persistently play pranks that are forcing him to make the decision to sell his homestead and leave the castle he has called home behind. Creepella, her niece Shivereen, and her friend Billy Squeakspeare, join Grandpa Frankenstein as they visit Castle Marinara (yes, there are plenty of puns - remember, this is a kids' book!) to see if they uncover the source of the ghostly pranks.

The mystery is a cross between Nancy Drew and Scooby Doo, involving scheming real estate investors and the unmasking of the ghostly apparitions. It's simple, it's fun, and it's filled with plenty of full color illustrations that are sure to keep any kid's attention.  It's kind of a shame they didn't have any series like this when I was in elementary school, as I have no doubt I would have enjoyed it.

I am curious, though, to know what prompted the publisher to take these Italian series and translate them for American readers. There are actually several different series - Geronimo Stilton, Thea Stilton, Creepella Von Cacklefur, Cave Mice, Space Mice, and Thea Stilton Mouseford Academy, Mice Kings, Kingdom of Fantasy, and the Special Editions. They must be doing relatively well for the American publishers to continue translating and publishing them (and quite frankly, there are more of these series on the shelves at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million than there are Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys, which is disappointing to me).

Regardless, it is a series I would recommend for parents who have elementary school age children, as it might entice those who aren't interested in reading to actually read!

RATING:  7 coffins filled with bread crumbs out of 10 for providing "spooky" tales that are not so scary that a young reader can't enjoy them!

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Nancy Drew - a Dynamite Comics mini-series ("The Case of the Cold Case")

Take two of my favorite things, combine them, and you're bound to have a guaranteed success story, right?  Well, not necessarily.  Last year, Dynamite Comics acquired the rights to a number of the Stratemeyer Syndicate properties and published a mini-series, "The Big Lie," starring Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.  It was very noir and centered around the Hardy Boys being accused of murdering their own father.  The story was a bit dark, but the author stayed true to Nancy, Frank, and Joe's characters, making it a mostly enjoyable read.

This year, Dynamite took a different route and allowed an entirely different creative team to tell a solo Nancy Drew mystery story - "The Case of the Cold Case."  Written by Kelly Thompson with art by Jenn St. Onge,  I always try to reserve any judgments until after I read the story as a whole, despite the number of complaints that I heard from fans up front, before the series even started:  "George is a lesbian?!" "Nancy wouldn't dress like that!!"  "Nancy never lived in Bayport!!" etc.  I realize that any time you cross mediums (from book to film, from comic to film, from book to comic, etc.), there are going to be some changes, whether creative, licensing, or otherwise.  Sometimes those changes can be good, sometimes they can be bad - it all depends on how they are handled.

With that introduction out of the way, "The Case of the Cold Case" had a pretty good mystery to it, definitely more long the lines of the Nancy Drew Files series rather than the Nancy Drew Mystery Stories series.  Nancy, who now lives in River Heights and has been away from her hometown of Bayport (where, yes, the Hardy Boys live, too), is drawn back to Bayport when she receives a mysterious note that hints at her mother's passing some years ago.  Never one to turn down a mystery, she returns to Bayport, meets back up with her friends George Fayne and Bess Marvin, as well as Frank and Joe Hardy, meets a handsome new friend in Pete, and stumbles across a body while investigating.  (And yes, Nancy figures out pretty quickly, as do readers, that Pete is the one who sent Nancy the message - he needs her help solving his mother's murder, which the police wrote off as a suicide because they could not be bothered to investigate).  The gang investigates further and discovers that there is something very strange going on, and when Nancy and Bess are witness to another murder, and then Bess is kidnapped, it's a race against time to rescue Bess, reveal the identity of the crooks, and stop the smuggling ring that has set up shop in Bayport!

The mystery was certainly worthy of Nancy Drew, the investigation followed in true Nancy Drew form, using every resource available - online computer search, the good ol' fashioned library, flashlights in dark caves, midnight stake-outs and such.  Nancy's friends stayed involved and helped, but as in any Nancy Drew story, she remained the focus, and she is ultimately the one who figures it all out.  The breakout character in the series is definitely Bess Marvin.  Finally, after more than 85 years of publication, Bess Marvin is portrayed exactly as she should be!!!!  Always described as "pleasantly plump," the artists in the book never drew her that way - she was always stick-figure thin like Nancy and George.  In this series, though, Bess has some extra weight (not overly done or caricature-like), although she still retains that blond, curvy beauty that makes Bess who she is.  Further, she may be a bit nervous and frightened, Thompson writes her as determined and willing to overcome those fears to help out her friend.  She even surprises everyone when she comes up with information regarding the big party that could reveal more clues to help Nancy with her investigation.  Definitely not the dumb-bunny most people would assume the blond in the group is!  I fell so much in love with this version of Bess Marvin that I would love to see her in her own series (but I'm not holding out any hope that will ever happen...).  I also loved the chapter cliffhangers - now, I know, in comics, it is pretty standard for multi-issue stories to have cliffhangers at the end of each issue to leave the reader hanging and wanting more. But this worked perfectly with Nancy Drew, since her books are known for their chapter cliffhangers, and Thompson did a bang-up job of giving some pretty good cliffhangers at the end of each issue (and even at the end of the story!).

Now, on to some things that I did not like about the book, and a few things that should have never, ever been in the book.  First, before anyone gets concerned, no, I had no problems with George being gay.  Yes, the books always described her as a tomboy with a boy's name who liked sports, despised dresses and girlish things, so it was rather stereotypical for Thompson to write her as a gay woman.  It may have been a bit more creative if George had been straight and Bess, the uber-feminine of the three, had been gay.  But that's neither here nor there.  George being gay was no big deal, and thankfully, Thompson did not make it a big deal.  She did not push it in the reader's faces or turn it into a huge platform about gay rights.  What did bother me, more than anything else in this series, was the use of the word "goddamn" by the characters.  Had it been the villains or some previously unknown supporting character, I would not have liked it, but I could have passed over it.  No, Thompson, for whatever reason, felt compelled to have Nancy say it (issue 1), Frank say it (issue 2), and George say it (issue 3).  I'm not a prude or anything - I realize that people cuss, and I know this comic was aimed at adults, not children - but let's face it, the characters of Nancy Drew, Frank Hardy, and George Fayne would never cuss.  Period.  And the use of the words in the story are wholly unnecessary to the situations. The little Halloween give-away promotional book that Dynamite did, reprinting the first half of issue 1, proves that, as Dynamite removed the word - and guess what?  It made absolutely no difference to the story, the characters, or the intention of the dialogue!  Which proves to me that it was unnecessary and thrown in there to somehow make Nancy appear more adult, perhaps, or maybe more "relevant" to today's comic readers?  I don't know, but for me, it detracted from my enjoyment of the story.

Something else that was more likely an editorial issue than anything else was the changing of Bess's name.  In issue 1, she was correctly called Bess Marvin.  In issues 2 and 3, for reasons unknown, she is suddenly Bess "Martin" (with a "t' instead of a "v'). Then, in issues 4 and 5, she is back to Bess Marvin again.  Is it just me, or does it seem like editors (both in comics and in books) no longer truly EDIT books, but they simply manage the books, perhaps even stay involved in the marketing of the books.  I find more spelling, grammar, and continuity errors in comics and books than I ever did 10 or 20 years ago.  For self-published comics and books, I give some leeway, as there is oftentimes no editor involved in those; but for comics and books published by the big companies, particularly when the comic specifically identifies an EDITOR, it bothers me that blatant and obvious mistakes like that make it through.  It was already jarring that Nancy, Bess, and George are transported to Bayport for their hometown (the fact that Thompson indicated in early interviews that she was a big fan, but later interviews, she admitted to only reading a few of the books, leads me to think her desire to tell this story stemmed from Dynamite's previous story, "The Big Lie," where everything took place in Bayport - although Nancy was never said to be from Bayport in that story, I can see that Thompson may have misinterpreted it and assumed Nancy was from there), so to change her last name like that would give longtime fans cause to question Thompson's genuine care for the character and her history.

One final thing that bothered me about the writing was the way Frank and Joe were portrayed.  The instant attraction between Joe and Bess was fun (very reminiscent of the '70s television show and some of the Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys SuperMysteries), but the fact that Frank and Joe were somewhat bumbling and not at all on par with Nancy Drew when it comes to solving mysteries did not work. I understand Thompson wanted Nancy to truly shine in this story, but it was extremely out of character for Frank and Joe to be merely "back-up" for Nancy and not side-by-side with her solving the crime.  Frank and Joe have been at mystery-solving for longer than Nancy, and I am left to wonder why Thompson used them in the first place, instead of simply having Ned, Burt, and Dave in the story instead.  Again, this was the writer's choice, and while I understand that changes are made when you cross mediums, if you don't stay true to an established character's history, personality, and skill-set, you run the risk of turning away and losing fans of the characters.

Overall, I enjoyed the story, I absolutely LOVED Bess, and I would certainly buy a sequel mini-series (which I'm assuming has to at least be in the planning stages judging by that cliffhanger on the last panel of issue 5!).  I just hope that if Thompson does write a sequel, she does a bit more research and reading into the Nancy Drew books to capture more than just a cursory essence of who and what Nancy Drew is.  (PLUS - love the fact that for the variant covers, they used the same font and style from the original yellow-spine books from back in the day!)

RATING:  7 crates of suspicious lobsters out of 10 for bringing Nancy Drew to a whole new generation of readers and welcoming her and her friends into the 21st century!